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House of Lords Hansard
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10 October 2016
Volume 774

Statement

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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement delivered in the other place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

“Mr Speaker, today I met with my counterpart, Bernard Cazeneuve. We agreed that we have a moral duty to safeguard the welfare of unaccompanied refugee children, and we both take our humanitarian responsibilities seriously. The UK Government have made clear their commitment to resettle vulnerable children under the Immigration Act and to ensure that those with links to the UK are brought here using the Dublin regulation.

The primary responsibility for unaccompanied children in France, including those in the Calais camp, lies with the French authorities; the UK Government have no jurisdiction to operate on French territory and the UK can contribute only in ways agreed with the French authorities and in compliance with French and EU law. The UK has made significant progress in speeding up the Dublin process. We have established a permanent official level contact group and we have seconded UK experts to the French Government. Part of the role is to assist co-ordinating efforts on the ground to identify children. Since the beginning of 2016, more than 80 unaccompanied children have been accepted for transfer to the UK from France under the Dublin regulation, nearly all of whom have now arrived in the UK.

Within these very real constraints, we continue to work with the French Government and partner organisations to speed up mechanisms to identify, assess and transfer unaccompanied refugee children to the UK, where this is in their best interests. While the decision on the dismantling of the Calais camp and the timing of this operation is a matter for the French Government, I have made it crystal clear to the French Interior Minister on numerous occasions, including at our meeting today, that our priority must be to ensure the safety and security of children during any camp clearances. We have made good progress today, but there is much more work to do. To this end, I emphasised to Monsieur Cazeneuve that we should transfer as many minors as possible from the camp, eligible under the Dublin regulation, before clearance commences, with the remainder coming over within the next few days of the operation.

I also outlined my views that those children eligible under the Dubs amendment to the Immigration Act 2016 must be looked after in safe facilities where their best interests are properly considered. The UK Government stand ready to help fund such facilities and provide the resourcing to aid the decision-making.

I made clear in my meeting today with Monsieur Cazeneuve that we should particularly prioritise those under the age of 12 because they are the most vulnerable. The UK remains committed to upholding our humanitarian responsibilities on protecting minors and those most vulnerable”.

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I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question in the other place. Many people, including in this House, just do not believe that the evidence shows that the Government have been doing as much as they should to bring unaccompanied refugee children in Calais with family links in the United Kingdom over here as quickly as possible, yet alone act on the terms of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Dubs to the Immigration Act. The Government have referred to what they are doing now, much of it only very recently, which simply has the effect of highlighting how little they have been doing up to now. How many unaccompanied children who have a relative in the UK are still in Calais? We must surely have established the answer to that question by now.

A recent British Red Cross report stated that on average it takes up to 11 months to bring a child to the UK under the procedures for reuniting families when there appears to be no reason why the process should take that long. Do the Government accept that the figure of 11 months is correct, or broadly correct, in relation to the process to date? Will the Government now undertake to ensure that all unaccompanied children with families in the UK will be brought over here before the unofficial refugee camps in Calais are shortly demolished? If the Government refuse to give that commitment, what action will they take to ensure that those remaining children are protected and not dispersed?

I do not doubt that responsibility for the delays can also be laid at the door of the French authorities, but it does not appear that we have acted on this matter with the urgency required in terms of resources and applying pressure on behalf of vulnerable unaccompanied children who are eligible to come to this country, some of whom have disappeared in the meantime.

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My Lords, we know that there are approximately 1,000 unaccompanied children in the camps in Calais. The number of children who may come over here is of course yet to be determined. However, we have been assured by the French that they are working on a list and that it will be provided in the next few days before the camps start to be cleared. The noble Lord asked about the average time being 11 months. Most of the children have been transferred relatively quickly. I appreciate the House’s concern but this can be a very complex process. Certainly, we have been very keen to get the list from the French. They are now keen to speed up the process of giving us that list, and as I say we hope to get it in the next few days. This Government have spent literally tens of millions of pounds and dedicated our time to speeding up the process. We have a team in place in the Home Office Dublin unit to ensure that the process is speeded up. We have also established a senior-level standing committee between ourselves and France. We have regular contact on Dublin issues and transferring the children, including ministerial, senior official and daily contact between officials. We are very keen to get those children here as quickly as possible. Today’s conversation proves that there is now a renewed commitment from France to ensure that that happens.

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I have spent much time in the camp in Calais over the course of both this year and last year, and I returned from my most recent visit just this weekend. There is very good reason to believe that the camp will start to be demolished on Monday 17 October. In a meeting with camp associations last week, the police said that when the demolitions start they will be, in their words, swift and violent. Therefore, I am sorry that in responding to the Urgent Question, the Minister did not say that she made strong representations to her French counterpart that the demolition planned for Monday 17 October be delayed to make more time available to remove children to safety so that they do not disappear, as they did last time. Will she ask the Home Secretary to take heed of the joint statement issued by the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, and her French counterpart, expressing their extreme disquiet at the lack of planning and provision for the children in the face of the impending demolition of the Jungle camp?

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My Lords, as I have said a couple of times today, those children remain everyone’s concern. Certainly, as the camp is demolished, that concern increases. As regards the date, I have not had one, but certainly it sounds like it is imminent. Previous statements from the French have said that the camps will be demolished by Christmas. On the children’s care, today the Home Secretary made it quite clear that children must be looked after in safe facilities, where their best interests are properly considered. She also reiterated that the UK Government stand ready to help fund such facilities and to provide resources to aid the decision-making.

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My Lords, has the noble Baroness had the chance to view the sobering insight of a recently broadcast ITV documentary called “The Forgotten Children”? In contrast with the 80 children whom the noble Baroness said the United Kingdom has taken, that programme highlighted the 88,000 children who are without parents in Europe, 10,000 of whom it said had gone missing, their whereabouts no longer known. The same documentary highlighted the plight of a brother and sister aged 13 and 12, who had escaped from Aleppo and who are now living in a tent in a derelict petrol station. How do we square that with the idea that we are providing protection for vulnerable children? How on earth can we sleep easily in our own beds at night when we know that these things are happening? Why are we not doing more to ensure a realistic and European-wide response to the magnitude of this crisis?

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The noble Lord makes an important point that we are not the only country in Europe. Today’s discussions have highlighted that each country in Europe has an obligation to the people who arrive in those countries. The news that the camp clearance is imminent has helped to focus the minds of not just France but Italy, Greece and other countries which may have received people and families who require asylum.

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My Lords, can the Minister clarify one point? It is good that we are, though all too slowly getting the Dublin III children to come to this country. What about the Immigration Act children, who were the specific subject of a vote that was passed in this House? Can the Minister give some assurance that it is just as urgent to get those over here to safety as the Dublin III children?

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The noble Lord is absolutely right. We consider these children to be children, whether they are Dublin III or Dubs Immigration Act children. We now know that under the Dubs amendment 50 have been accepted for transfer and 35 are here. However, the noble Lord is absolutely right; it is vital to get children from either category over here as soon as we can.

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My Lords, some years ago I was asked to chair a government inquiry into services for disabled people. We produced 30 recommendations and I was amazed at how difficult it was to change anything in this country and move things along. As I listened to the debate about the problems in Calais I began to wonder just how many obstructions we have to overcome, so I went round your Lordships’ House asking various people who I thought might know how many obstructions—forms, regulations, French and English laws—there are. No one could tell me. We ought to have some idea of exactly what the obstructions are before we are too critical of the Minister. Can she therefore tell us, not necessarily now but perhaps in writing, just how many forms, regulations, and French and English laws have to be overcome to get the children over? That would be helpful.

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I thank my noble friend for that question. Certainly a large number of hoops have to be gone through in placing these children in the appropriate country of safety, and I will try to get a full list, with precise details, of the bureaucracy that has to be overcome. I hope that in the coming weeks some of that bureaucracy will be simplified so that we can expedite these cases. However, we have to abide by the laws of the countries that the children are coming from and we also have to be very mindful of the safeguarding arrangements in place in those countries. It is incredibly important that we verify that the children go to the right place to meet their needs but also that we verify that they are who we think they are. We have to avoid any awful unintended consequences of trying to rush things rather than doing them properly.